What better way for Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre to celebrate its 30th birthday than with the stage premiere of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton? For a start, it's set almost on the theatre's doorstep, where Mrs Gaskell probably strolled (when it was the city's cotton exchange) while her husband ministered at the Unitarian Church opposite the stage door.
It is also a book that the group of enterprising men who formed the Royal Exchange Theatre Company in 1976 long considered as a potential play. Yet given the ambitious nature of the project, it is perhaps unsurprising that it has taken 30 years (and a female director) for it to be created in the immediacy of the theatre's round space. Even if Rona Munro's sprawling and slightly ponderous adaptation doesn't have the same documentary clarity in its description of social inequality at the heart of the world's first industrial city as Gaskell's perceptive grand narrative, it remains a bustling and perceptive account of unemployed Mancunian mill hands in the "hungry 1840s".
What Sarah Frankcom's production lacks in complexity or emotion, however, it makes up for in austere eloquence with a basic set - a mill whose walls whizz down from above the stage and bales of cotton dangling overhead - and singing simply accompanied by a well-integrated live trio.
Admirably, Frankcom makes little attempt to compete with the glossy presentational effects apparent in television adaptations of such epic works. The daily grind - four funerals and a wedding (doomed to failure) in the first half alone - is given a gloomy, claustrophobic monotony, yet I missed any sense of foreboding or danger lurking beneath the chimneys of Ancoats.
The nub of Mary Barton is that any attempt to establish trade unions in "Cottonopolis" was constantly thwarted by employers. Yet although the appalling poverty is self-evident, the seething frustration that drove a group of exasperated workers - led by the Chartist John Barton - to the end of their tether, and to murder, is less evident.
There's a central love interest, too, with the good Chartist's daughter torn between riches and reality. You can hardly blame the young seamstress Mary Barton for being tempted by the prospect of a better life when she attracts the attention of the toff Henry Carsons, son of a local mill owner. Passionately played by Kellie Bright, Mary brushes off the lovelorn young engineer, Jem Wilson, played by William Ash.
Barton himself (vigorously portrayed by Roger Morlidge), the big-hearted but embittered fighter for workers' rights who is reduced from verbose pillar of his crumpled community to a gibbering wreck, suffers most from Gaskell's slight uncertainty in characterisation.
With the women, Gaskell's on surer ground: the girl whose hours spent stitching turns her blind; the aunt whose disastrous marriage into money leaves her working the streets; the mother who blames Mary for her son's troubles; and the cosseted mill-owner's daughters, torn between fancy frocks and the stirrings of a social conscience.
Frankcom's marshalling of her actors (most doubling roles) is admirable. Rather more difficult to achieve, however, is the panoramic sweep of the narrative for which we're often left to rely on our own wide-angled lens.
Wilson's bravery in the mill fire, for example, or Mary's desperate rush to Liverpool and her frantic pursuit of a ship out to sea, all suffer from being cramped in description and delivery. Yet while Mary Barton hardly makes happy birthday viewing, it's an engrossing tale as depicted here, significant to the history of Manchester and its cotton trade heritage.
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